How do you deal with overwhelm?

oie_transparent (4)Ever been there? You’re grappling with something you want done but it’s not going well. As time is passing and your worried thoughts mount, you seem to be progressing less and less. Now you’re too scared to stop trying even as your efforts turn counterproductive.

Yikes! Overwhelm! How do you stop its oppressive spiral? 

Bring in compassion

When trying hard and your efforts are “going nowhere”, it can be unsettling. Some people push through it. The more  sensitive souls find themselves disturbed.

As a sensitive, you “sink” because you so  want to be able to trust yourself to take care of your priority yet you aren’t doing that. You then start doubting if you can.

But before you conclude anything, bring compassion into this situation. In your overwhelmed state your nervous system is as disoriented as a poorly hedgehog in daylight.

To help, you’ll need to intervene very gently or the ‘critter’ shields itself from the very support it needs.

Successful response to human overwhelm is about suspending negative thoughts and – instead – sending your attention to register how you are and what you need. It calms and reorients you from internal torment to truth.

Not diagnosis! Go for what helps

When an overwhelmed client asked for help, she couldn’t think straight anymore. She longed to work again after a three-year break but wasn’t even able to complete her CV.

Seeing that first step not happening, she worried she was “not confident enough” and tried harder and worried more still.

You too may have responded to yourself with scary thoughts about what your overwhelm “means”. It’s a common reaction because so many predominant cultures respond to difficulties by focusing on ‘what’s wrong’.

What’s sustaining and helpful though is a very different matter. You need something that’s capable of de-escalating your state so that your innate intelligence can do its job of generating relevant solutions.

Consider where to find hope

As my client sat back and started to recap, she was flooded with painful feelings. One by one, I reflected back both the feeling and what it showed she was longing for. The more she connected with her needs instead of her ‘conclusions’, the more she relaxed. Her inner “processor” was starting over.

Like my client, you may find that overwhelm is not a problem in itself. It is but a natural, healthy guard against overstimulation and an ally: it helps you find solutions within.

When my client’s heart felt received, she suddenly saw she hadn’t considered the value she’d bring to her employers. Surprised, energised, she felt free to apply for jobs.

Steps to move on from overwhelm

If you spend rather a lot of time in overwhelm, you’ll need to look into de-stimulating your lifestyle so that it better works for who you are.

If, on the other hand, you want to utilise the gift of overwhelm in the moment so you can benefit and move on, here are some simple steps to guide the process.

1. Catch it early, know your warning signs

The quicker you respond to overwhelm, the easier it will be to take care of yourself within it. It helps a lot to note your early warning signs so take a moment when not overwhelmed and make a ‘symptoms’ prompt card.

Example: I pause to regroup as soon as I notice:

  • working harder while liking the results less
  • holding my breath
  • getting confused and foggy in my thinking
  • tensing up the body and keeping it that way
  • get very worried or panicky inside

2. Shift your attention away from ‘what’s wrong?’ and onto compassionate check in

When you notice a ‘symptom’ or if you catch yourself getting pulled into a bout of self-critical, pessimistic thoughts, it’s your cue to shift focus. Pause and check in with your feelings and needs:

1. Guide your attention by putting your hand on your heart and ask: “How am I right now?”

Example: “Let’s see. My shoulders are screaming at me and my neck is tense. I’m hardly breathing. Feeling really confused and panicky. Wow, that’s intense! Oh, a bit easier now though.”

2. Lower your hand to the belly and ask:

“If I did what I’m trying to do, what would I get? What am I longing to experience in this situation? What is my heart wanting here?”

Listen out for a deep, felt truth, not clever truth such as “shoulds”.

If you’re not certain you got there, ask a deepening question: “And if that happened, what would it give me inside?” Keep asking and listening to what arises until you sense a gentle shift.

Example: “First, I want some ease!!! I’d love to feel calm enough to see what’s good to do instead of this madness.

But I want to complete this thing because, because… well, so I feel okay, hm, more than ok, I want to be able to do something worthwhile.

And, what would that give me? I’d feel easy, at peace with myself. I’d actually want to be here, in this world. Yeah, I want to enjoy being in life as me!”

A tiny hedgehog being held with care

A tiny hedgehog being held with care

3. Choose a task you can do easily

When ready, ease yourself into the flow of activity with an action that’s very doable and yet expresses the beauty of what you discovered (in step 2) i.e. your precious needs.

Choose other actions, later, with the same criteria: easy doability and relevance to what matters to you.

Example: “I’ll sweep the floor and focus on enjoying it. I’ll focus on my love of order. Yeah! I want to feel the freedom to contribute something of ‘me’ to the family. Then, I’ll work again but in 10 minute chunks to start with.”

A final note

Please practice these steps with lesser cases of overstimulation. It just isn’t fair to expect yourself to learn in the middle of overwhelm.

Take small, compassionate steps towards your feelings and needs and you will get yourself back on your feet again. Gently does it!

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